David Johnstone

Notes on “The Lost World of Genesis One”, by John Walton

December 22, 2009

I’ve just finished reading The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, by John H. Walton. Walton is a professor of Old Testament and, judging by one of his other books that I have, is an expert on Ancient Near East thought.

In The Lost World of Genesis One, Walton presents and cogently argues for a novel interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis: Genesis 1 talks about functional origins, not material origins. Walton appears to make a very strong case for his view, so I look forward to seeing the scholarly reaction to this work. The arguments in this book go beyond everything I can remember reading — it appears that nobody has ever thought that Genesis 1 was talking about anything other than material creation. I’m also looking forward to some solid critical reviews of this work, especially from a young earth creationist perspective (which, in a way, appears to have “the most to lose” if this proposed reading of Genesis 1 is correct). There are quite a few reviews for this book online, with the vast majority being very positive, and I’m yet to read anything resembling a good negative review (I want something more than “this book supports evolution; therefore, this book is wrong”). While this book is written for a popular audience, a more scholarly version of this book is coming out soon, called Genesis One as Ancient Cosmology.

Anyway, here are my summary notes on the book. Each chapter argues for a single proposition, with the first eleven arguing for the interpretation, while the remaining chapters discuss related issues. There is a brief FAQ at the end. This definitely isn’t a substitute for the actual book, but hopefully this gives a reasonable summary of what it says.

Proposition 1: Genesis 1 Is Ancient Cosmology. Genesis 1 is an ancient cosmogony for people with a very different worldview to us. To understand Genesis 1 properly, both the words and the worldview must be understood, and translating the worldview is much more difficult. The Bible should not be understood concordistically — the Bible never teaches “new science”. The heart is spoken of as the seat of emotion — in the Bible, this is physiology, not a metaphor (see also biblical usage of the word “kidney”). In ANE thought, there was no such thing as “natural processes” as opposed to divine activity — everything was done by the gods. There was no such thing as miracles (where miracles are events that deviate from the natural — because there was no natural).

Proposition 2: Ancient Cosmology Is Function Oriented. When we think of what it means to create, we generally think of bring about material existence (material ontology). In ANE though, things exist when they have “a function in an ordered system”. Although the gods were responsible for materially creating everything, the material creation was not considered significant, and ANE creation accounts never include this aspect of creation — they talk more about separation and naming and other function related things. “The ancient world viewed the cosmos more like a company or a kingdom.”

Proposition 3: “Create” (Hebrew bara) Concerns Functions. The Hebrew word for “create” (“bara”) is always used of God and refers to creating in a functional sense, rather than material creation. It is often observed that “bara” never make a mention of materials used, which is used to support the idea of creation ex nihilo — but if “bara” is used for functional creation, then it doesn’t make any sense to talk about material used. This is not to say that God is not responsible for material creation, but that Genesis 1 is not primarily concerned with it.

Proposition 4: The Beginning State in Genesis 1 Is Nonfunctional. Rather than translating “toho” as “formless” in Genesis 1:1, it should rather be translated as “unproductive” or “useless” or “nonfunctional”. This would match better with its usage elsewhere (where it refers to function) and would match the function oriented view of the creation account. Creation started with the “waters of the deep” (the primeval cosmic waters of the ANE world) — not nothing in terms of material, but nothing in terms of function. “Good” also refers to being able to function correctly, as can be seen in the case of man only being able to function completely after woman is created.

Proposition 5: Days One to Three in Genesis 1 Establish Functions. On the first day, God created light, not as a physical phenomenon, but as day — day and night are created on the first day (note that God called the light “day”, not “light”). Since the first day/night transition after light (which is day and night) was created was from day to night, the Bible says “there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” On the second day, God created the firmament — the solid dome that holds up the waters above in the ancient cosmology — to create a space to live and (more importantly) regulate weather (precipitation). On the third day, God created dry land (separated dry from wet, and didn’t create any new material) and food (as vegetation). These three things — time (day/night), weather (rain) and food — are the basic functions of the world that allow for the existence of man and are paralleled in other ANE texts and in Genesis 8:22.

Proposition 6: Days Four to Six in Genesis 1 Install Functionaries. The second three days parallel the first three days. On the fourth day, God created the heavenly bodies (sun, moon and stars) and functionally describes them — for signs, seasons, days and years. On the fifth day, God created birds of the sky and fish of the sea (all sea creatures, including sea monsters) to populate the spheres of existence created on the second day. On the sixth day, God created land animals and mankind. Mankind are given a function (v28). In Genesis 2, materials are given for creation, but these are archtypal — all men are made of dust of the ground (Genesis 3:19 indicates that all people are dust and will return to dust), and all women are from the side of man (Genesis 2:24).

Proposition 7: Divine Rest Is in a Temple. The rest on the seventh day indicates that Genesis 1 is a “temple text”. God has set up his temple in the first six days, and is now taking up residence in his temple (like a US president takes up residence in the White House). Divine rest always takes place in a temple. “Rest” is not a state of doing nothing or relaxation, but rather, doing normal duties (like a US president who, once the election campaign is over, “rests” by doing what he has been elected to do).

Proposition 8: The Cosmos Is a Temple. There is generally a close connection between cosmic creation and temple building in ANE literature. A lot of things in the temple and tabernacle represented cosmic geography. The temple and tabernacle also contain a lot of imagery from Eden. The three — the tabernacle, Eden, and the cosmos — are interlinked. Eden is not just a nice garden, but an archtypal sanctuary for the presence of God. Creation itself can be seen as a temple (Isaiah 66:1-2; divine rest takes place in a temple) and therefore Genesis 1 is “describing the creation of the cosmic temple with all of its functions and with God dwelling in its midst.”

Proposition 9: The Seven Days of Genesis 1 Relate to the Cosmic Temple Inauguration. The seven days of the creation account are the seven days of the cosmic temple’s inauguration. While the material creation of the temple is necessary, the inauguration is the important part, and this is the focus of Genesis 1. Genesis 1 may have also acted as a liturgy for an annual celebration that “reaffirmed creation, temple presence and royal election” which, although not attested to in the Bible, would be culturally appropriate.

Proposition 10: The Seven Days of Genesis 1 Do Not Concern Material Origins. There are many indicators in Genesis 1 that it is talking about functionality, but nothing that indicates material creation — material creation is not something that you would observe unless you came with the presupposition that it was talking about material creation. While the Bible teaches that God created everything, Genesis 1 does not talk about material creation (although it does assume God created). Death before the fall is not a problem: Romans 5 is talking about humans; plants and animals can die (in fact, must die to provide food and prevent overcrowding of the world); and humans themselves weren’t created with immortal bodies, but had access to the tree of life (and their punishment was the removal of access to the tree of life).

Proposition 11: “Functional Cosmic Temple” Offers Face-Value Exegesis. The reading of Genesis 1 proposed is the most “literal” reading, as it recognises it as an ancient text written to an ancient people group who had a different way of thinking to us. They would have understood the text as a functional creation account, not as a material creation account, and we should not impose a material ontology on it. As it is not referring to material creation, concordonist interpretations (reading “scientific” information into the text) are not valid (these readings read Genesis 1 on modern terms, not on its own terms). The proposed reading does not reduce Genesis 1 to merely theological truth either.

Proposition 12: Other Theories of Genesis 1 Either Go Too Far or Not Far Enough. Young earth creationism reads Genesis 1 incorrectly by imposing modern ideas and ways of thinking on an ancient text that was never intended to be read that way. Their misunderstanding of Genesis 1 leads them to defend a history of the world (and view of origins) that is supported by neither the Bible nor science. Likewise, old earth creationism incorrectly reads modern science into Genesis 1. They typically read Genesis 1 with the concordonist day-age interpretation, and thus read the text in a way it was never meant to be read. The framework interpretation does not go far enough. The literary structure seen by proponents of this view is valid, but Genesis 1 is more than theological truths. There is no unbiblical view of material origins, as the Bible says nothing except that God did it.

Proposition 13: The Difference Between Origin Accounts in Science and Scripture Is Metaphysical in Nature. Some people see science and God in relation to creation like a pie: the more that science can explain, the less God is necessary. Eventually, God’s role becomes so insignificant that he isn’t needed. However, it is better to see God’s activity and natural processes as a cake: scientific explanations of natural processes are the bottom layer, while God’s ultimate causation and purpose are the top level (this is not to say that God can’t directly act in the world apart from natural processes). Science is teleologically neutral — so it is unable to say whether or not natural phenomena have a purpose (science only refers to the bottom layer of the cake metaphor) — but Genesis 1 is all about teleology.

Proposition 14: God’s Roles as Creator and Sustainer Are Less Different Than We Have Thought. God’s continuing role in the world can be misunderstood. Some see the world as something that God created in the past, where he made everything and set up everything to run naturally, and now isn’t involved in the day-to-day running of the universe (which is practically deism). On the other hand, others see no discontinuity between God’s creating and his sustaining. It is best to see God as remaining intimately involved in the world today, but a distinction should be made between the creating and assigning of the functions and the continued sustaining of them (a “dotted”, not a “solid” line should be drawn).

Proposition 15: Current Debate About Intelligent Design Ultimately Concerns Purpose. Intelligent design is not teleologically neutral and thus goes outside the bounds of science. ID arguments are largely based on the claimed inability of neo-Darwinism to explain some features of life (“irreducible complexity”) and that design (with an implied — although unidentified — designer) is the only reasonable explanation. It is hard to see how this is not a “God of the gaps” argument, as proving the negative (that natural processes cannot be responsible) is only possible when all possibilities have been considered and ruled out. On the other hand, neo-Darwinism cannot be used to argue for a lack of purpose.

Proposition 16: Scientific Explanations of Origins Can be Viewed in Light of Purpose, and If So, Are Unobjectionable. Biological evolution is not objectionable because it is “purposeless”. Teleological concerns are beyond the realm of science, so science cannot say whether or not evolution has purpose, and a Christian can reasonably say that evolution does have purpose. Some claim that God would not use evolution as it violates his character (because of the idea of “survival of the fittest” and progress being made through competition and death), but one should be careful before they claim that they would do something differently (i.e., better) than God. Evolution does not remove God’s role in creation any more than meteorology removes God’s role in the weather. Some also object to evolution as the Bible (Genesis 2, Romans 5 etc.) treats Adam and Eve as real people who are very important for the doctrine of sin. There are a number of problems with evolutionary origins of Adam (at what point did he become made in the image of God?, was it only a single original pair?) that have not been adequately resolved. However, there is much more to biological evolution than the evolution of man, so one can use evolution to explain the existance of most of the diversity of life, but believe something special happened with humans.

Proposition 17: Resulting Theology in This View of Genesis 1 Is Stronger, Not Weaker. The proposed reading of Genesis 1 has a number of theological implications.

  • God is active in everything: gaining a scientific understanding of something does not diminish God’s role at all; and God is in control of all of nature. That the world around us works/functions is more important than its mere material existence (even though its functionality it is largely neglected in today’s materialism), and the world functions just as God wants it to.
  • The cosmos, as God’s temple, is a sacred space and should not be abused.
  • We should observe the sabbath by recognising that it is God who is in control. We do not imitate God in his sabbath (who is running the cosmos). How the sabbath should be observed should not be regulated by rules (for then it loses its function), but should reflect our love, respect and awe of God.
  • Order is a very important aspect of wisdom (consider authority, society, relationships, family etc.). Wisdom literature makes much of the topic of creation because creation is all about God bringing order to the world.
  • The role of humans in the world is different to that in ANE thought and modern materialism. We are created as stewards of God’s creation (but we are not slaves of the gods as in ANE thought) and we have a mandate to subdue and rule it and are called to be in a relationship with God (rather than the purposeless existence of materialism).
  • “Good” in Genesis 1 does not refer to moral goodness, but to function. Therefore, when God declared creation good, he meant that it worked as intended.

Proposition 18: Public Science Education Should Be Neutral Regarding Purpose. Public science education should be teleologically neutral (so it shouldn’t discuss purpose). Therefore, Genesis (for it is all about purpose and function and not material creation), metaphysical naturalism (which claims that material is all there is and says there is no purpose), and design (for this is about purpose) do not belong in the science classroom. Science, as currently defined, is based upon methodological naturalism. Science should be taught in a way that represents the current state of knowledge (to the extent that this is possible to do), and any known limitations should not be ignored. There should be additional classes that deal with metaphysical views, as we live in a world where there are many issues that go beyond what science can tell us.


Where do dinosaurs fit in? A long time ago.

Isn’t this just a doge to accommodate evolution? This interpretation came about due to a desire to understand the text. The development of this interpretation was driven primarily by concerns in the text (why is light called “day”? etc.), then by the function oriented nature of other ANE texts. That evolution isn’t such a problem as it is often made out to be is incidental really.

Why don’t you just read the text literally? This is the most literal reading. Reading it literally requires an understanding of the Hebrew words and culture, so reading it with a 21st century Western mindset is not going to do justice to the text. What our word “create” means has little significance to the literal meaning of the text.

Why can’t Genesis 1 be both functional and material? Assuming that it must be material is cultural imperialism. There is nothing in the text that indicates that it is talking about material creation.

If this is the “right” reading, why didn’t we know about it until just now? This reading, although based on textual concerns, requires an understanding of ANE thought. Understanding ANE thought requires ANE literature, and this has only recently been found and deciphered.

Why would God make the Bible so hard to understand? God has revealed himself to particular people groups who have their own language and culture. A basic understanding of God’s word is normally clear, but the Bible is deep, and we should not expect everything to be immediately obvious. Scholars are useful because they have the ability to gain a much deeper understanding of the Bible.

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